Skip to content ↓

What scientists can do to fight the Frankenstein myth

This article by Institute Professor Mildred Dresselhaus, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, originally appeared in the March 2, 1998 issue of The Scientist. Comments may be sent to the magazine at

In his comments at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) two weeks ago, President Bill Clinton echoed a refrain from his State of the Union address in which he tempered his enthusiasm for scientific progress with a call to "see that science serves humanity, and not the other way around." This disquieting sentiment -- that science, like Dr. Frankenstein's monster, is poised to wreak havoc on its creator -- has a currency today that should alarm us as scientists. More than alarm us, it should spur us to action.

Yes, it is vitally important that science and technology serve humanity. But this can occur only in an atmosphere of hope and trust rather than suspicion and fear.

AAAS, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, has always advocated an open dialogue between scientists and the rest of society so as to -- in the words of Joseph Henry, AAAS founding member and the first director of the Smithsonian Institution -- "vindicate the claims of science to public respect and encouragement, and set forth the nature and dignity of the pursuit."

Science and technology have provided us with a bountiful harvest: longer and healthier lives, a robust economy, a growing understanding of life's mysteries from the atom to the cosmos. At the same time, there is no denying that there have been unintended consequences of our rush forward into knowledge.

Industrialization, for example, has had a dire impact on the environment. While pollution-control technologies have gone a long way toward atonement, more needs to be done. Of recent note are all the scientific advances in molecular biology and genetics, with their potentially huge impact on our health and quality of life.

No one really disputes that it is beneficial to understand the genetic underpinnings of disease. Yet, what are we to do about the use of genetic tests that screen people for potential illness? Should insurance companies or employers have access to such information? And then there is the cloning of the sheep named Dolly, which has inspired a most egregious level of hysteria. When an obscure, unfunded physicist announced his (quite dubious) plan to clone humans, the media, which should have been more skeptical, reacted with a frenzy of coverage that only served to bolster the public's worst fears about this burgeoning and potentially useful technology.

The question really isn't "should we conduct research on the techniques of cloning" -- this research will be done elsewhere, if not in the United States. The question is, how do we conduct such research responsibly, in concert with the value we place on human dignity? And it is up to us as scientists to communicate just how we think this can be done, and why.


Some of us may resist the notion that we have some responsibility for how science is interpreted by the public. But who besides us can speak with such passion and authority about the benefits of science? Despite the challenges implied in the question, I think it behooves us to ask ourselves what we, as scientists, can do to foster the public's trust in our work.

For one thing, we should encourage and participate in forums, panels, and programs that bring together the various constituents of the scientific enterprise, including nonscientists whose lives are touched daily by what we do. Only by carefully listening to the questions and concerns of those for whom science is not their raison d'etre can we anticipate misunderstanding, gauge the potential impact of our work, and ensure that our research finds its fullest and best expression in the world.

Two forums sponsored by AAAS serve as an example. At a forum last June, cloning pioneer Ian Wilmut was joined by Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization; Ezekiel Emanuel of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission; Maxine Singer, president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, DC; Ted Peters of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, and others. The group considered the recommendations on cloning issued by the National Bioethics Advisory Commission and explored the responsibilities of scientists, private companies and government, as well as issues related to scientific freedom, ethics, and theology. A second forum in September brought together a similar mix of people to consider the scientific and ethical implications of human germ-line intervention.

Another example of open dialogue is the three-day conference that AAAS cosponsored last fall at Chicago's Field Museum on "the epic of evolution." The theory of evolution has long served as a lightning rod for misunderstanding between scientists and nonscientists. During this conference -- which was open to the public and drew more than 400 people -- theologians, cosmologists, anthropologists and others involved in evolutionary research met to discuss such issues as cosmic origins, the evolution of life on Earth, and the interrelationships of culture, society, and religion.

Only by bringing people of disparate views together can we find common ground and keep moving the conversation forward. Programs such as these also help to dispel the myth of the know-it-all scientist unwilling to acknowledge the impact on others of his or her work.


As important as these kinds of discussions are, there are even more direct ways in which scientists can help to bridge whatever gaps may exist between science and its intended beneficiaries. In fact, we need look no further than our own back yards. At AAAS, we manage a variety of programs that put scientists in touch with their community.

One example is the AAAS Science Library Institute, which encourages librarians in urban areas to improve their science resources, especially with minority patrons in mind. As part of this effort, AAAS helps set up partnerships between scientists and librarians in their area, so that the scientists can assist in collections review and help plan science opportunities for children in the library.

The public's perception of science has a mighty impact on how well and in what ways science is funded in this country. As scientists, we can do more to communicate the importance of our work to our representatives in government -- local, state and national. In terms of the public good, it is just as vital that policymakers understand more about science as it is for scientists to understand more about how policy is made.

A number of organizations sponsor fellowships that place scientists in government offices that deal directly with science-related policies. At AAAS, we also conduct seminars for members of Congress and their staffs on current scientific or technical issues. Just as powerful are efforts that individual scientists make to keep their representatives apprised of the significance of what they do. For guidance on how best to accomplish this, there's a handbook produced by AAAS called "Working with Congress: A Practical Guide for Scientists and Engineers."

Thanks in part to the fastest-growing economy in nine years, federal support for scientific R&D is climbing again. In 1998, nondefense R&D is slated for a 5.4 percent increase over 1997 levels; President Clinton's 1999 proposed budget includes a 5.8 percent rise over 1998.

But a closer look tells us that because of cuts over the previous three years, spending for nondefense R&D in 1998 will actually be 2.2 percent lower than 1994 levels, in inflation-adjusted terms. This means that except for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation, most federal agencies still have less money to spend than they did four years ago.

Then there's the disparity across areas of research. Health-related R&D leads the way in 1998 with $14.1 billion, up 6.6 percent over 1997, thanks primarily to a 7.1 percent increase in the budget for NIH. The President's proposed budget for 1999 gives the biggest increases to biomedical and climate change research. There's strong bipartisan support for biomedical research because it has an immediately recognizable payoff. But it's important to remember that many big breakthroughs in basic science have an impact that may not be evident for 25 years or more.

One example is silicon, the basis of today's electronic revolution. During World War II, there was the need for a very pure form of silicon in order to make reliable sensors for radiation detection. Research on the electronic properties of silicon eventually led to the discovery of the transistor. This allowed the development of the integrated circuit, which is the cornerstone of today's semiconductor industry and ushered in the information age. In my own field of solid-state physics, there's a definite feedback loop between the experimentalists who discover new materials and the engineers who use that material to create new devices, which the experimentalists can then exploit to make new discoveries.

Many of the most important applications are largely unanticipated. Compared with something like HIV research, it can be harder to communicate the importance of, say, football-stadium-sized particle accelerators, which illuminate the secrets of matter contained within the constituents of individual atoms. But communicate we must. Basic and applied science are the best kind of symbionts, feeding off each other to their mutual advantage. As one fares, so fares the other.


Like it or not, science and technology are under increasing public scrutiny. Biotechnologies such as cloning and the genetic engineeringof agricultural crops raise the hackles of many who fear their effects on our health and values. And even in a thriving economy, policymakers are keeping a closer eye on how R&D funds are spent. The landmark Government Performance and Results Act of 1997 requires federal agencies to submit to Congress "strategic plans" tied to annual goals and measures.

The not-unreasonable intent of the legislation is for federal agencies such as NIH to be more clearly accountable to the taxpayers. But because many scientific achievements cannot be anticipated or planned for in a strategic way, scientists need to retain the freedom to follow hunches, to go down as many blind alleys as they need in order to find the next golden door.

One way AAAS has chosen to celebrate its sesquicentennial is by beginning a conversation in the form of a survey of former presidentsand board members, current members, and the public about the changing roles of science and technology and the responsibilities of science to society. AAAS posted some initial responses on its Web page and solicited reactions from its members and others during an eight-week open-comment session online that ended on February 12. During this anniversary year, we will study this wide-ranging collection of opinions and allow them to guide us as we approach the new century.

As scientists, we can do more than simply fret about increased public scrutiny. We can take direct action to see that science and technology are better understood as staunch allies, and not enemies, of the public good.

Copyright 1998, The Scientist. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 1, 1998.

Related Topics

More MIT News